As I’ve mentioned before, My Own True Love and I are traveling to Normandy in May on a tour led by the National World War II Museum. The focus of the trip is D-Day–something I know about in only the broadest of terms. Which means I decided to read up, because that is what I do. The museum helpfully included a list of suggested reading: ten serious works of military history written by respected historians and journalists, ranging in scope from a comprehensive history of the war from the American and British perspective drawing largely on first hand accounts to the story of a group of men from one small town in Virginia who died at Omaha Beach.* Overwhelmed by the choices, I identified the ones we already owned (and by we, I mean My Own True Love) and then picked one at random.
The book gods smiled on me. Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day proved to be just the kind of military history I like. In the foreword Ryan claims the book is “not a military history. It is the story of people: the men of the Allied forces, the enemy they fought, and the civilians who were caught up in the bloody confusion of D Day.” Ryan manages the paradoxical task of portraying the sense of confusion with utter clarity. Instead of telling the story from the viewpoint of a omniscient narrator who can see the invasion as a whole, he moves from one powerful vignette to another, replicating the isolation of each unit on the battlefield. He moves from tragedy to comedy and back. His enlisted men are as vivid as his generals. He not only made me care about members of the invading force, he made me feel sympathy for lower-level German officers unable to respond to the invasion because of bad decisions made higher up the chair of command. (Quite a hat trick.) My only complaint with the book is that it made me cry on public transportation.
Will The Longest Day help me follow the course of the invasion as we walk the beaches in Normandy? Maybe not. But it certainly helped me understand the battle in human terms. And that is, after all, one of the reasons I read history.
*Here’s the list for anyone looking to add to your To-Be-Read shelf:
Stephen Ambrose. Band of Brothers.
Stephen Ambrose. D-Day: June 6, 1944
Stephen Ambrose. Pegasus Bridge**
Rick Atkinson. The Guns at Last Light: the War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
Tom Brokaw. The Greatest Generation
Robert M. Citino. The German Way of War
John Keegan. Six Armies in Normandy
Alex Kershaw. The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice.
Donald L. Miller. The Story of World War II
Cornelius Ryan. The Longest Day
It’s an impressive list, but I must admit it made me wonder if there are any books about D-Day written by women. A quick Google search gave me an impressive number of hits, all with notation “missing:
women“–which sums things up on many levels. If anyone knows of an example, please let me know.
**In case you hadn’t caught on, Dr. Ambrose was one of the founders of the museum.